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More than half of Europe’s forests lost over 6,000 years

A pasture, forest, and town in Austria. Photo via pxhere.

A pasture, forest, and town in Austria. Photo via pxhere.

  • In a report published in Scientific Reports, an international group of scientists researched Europe’s forest loss using pollen analysis.
  • Increased demand for agricultural land and wood fuel were found to be the leading causes for deforestation.
  • Six millenia ago, more than two-thirds of central and northern Europe was covered by forest, and today only one-third is covered by forest.

In just six thousand years, more than half of Europe’s central and northern forests have disappeared, according to the results of new research. In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, scientists showed how most of the land there – more than two-thirds – was once covered by forests.

Not surprisingly, an increased demand for agricultural land and the use of wood fuel have been the leading causes of forest loss in the region over thousands of years. The findings were published in Scientific Reports on January 15 in an article entitled: “Europe’s lost forests: a pollen-based synthesis for the last 11,000 years.”

“Most countries go through a forest transition and the UK and Ireland reached their forest minimum around 200 years ago,” said lead author Neil Roberts, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Plymouth, in a press release. “Other countries in Europe have yet to reach that point, and some parts of Scandinavia – where there is not such a reliance on agriculture – are still predominantly forest.”

The team’s work was led by the University of Plymouth and used pollen analysis from more than 1,000 sites. They also employed the European Pollen Database. 

Researchers cited Ellis, E.C. et al to point out the valuable lessons in history that can be used today in future forestry initiatives aimed at impacting habitat change. 

“Along with an intrinsic interest in Europe’s natural and cultural heritage, there is a need by climatologists, archaeologists, geomorphologists, conservation ecologists and others for the reconstruction of long-term, large-scale changes in forest cover, especially those associated with human activities,” Ellis noted.

Some regions have suffered significant forest loss, particularly the UK and Ireland, where there is less than 10 percent forest coverage. Alternative fuel sources and building materials seem to be turning the tide, though.

The UK has introduced the National Forest Project and the New Northern Forest project as countermeasures to forest loss. The researchers are cautiously optimistic.

Roberts cautions that the steady forest loss experienced in Europe has had “consequences for carbon cycling, ecosystem functioning and biodiversity.”


Ellis, E. C. et al. Used planet: a global history. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110, 7978–7085 (2013).

Roberts, N. et al. Europe’s lost forests: a pollen-based synthesis for the last 11,000 years. Scientific Reports (January 2018).

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